It is easy to see, or at least to imagine, what all the fuss was about. The book, first published in 1928, is replete with four letter sexual swear words that even today are taboo, and contained graphic descriptions of penetrative sex and his'n'hers orgasms. But, to me, this is largely a red herring, because the real force of the book is as a critique of the barrenness of industrial-economic life in the period after the Great War, the war that was to end all wars (or World War I as we now less optimistically call it). And in this sense, the book is an important pillar in the pantheon of formative modernist literature.
I want to share with you (or remind you of, if you've already read it) a few important passages that illustrate the deep philosophical underpinnings of Lawrence's project. We can distinguish three threads of thought running through the book: the emptiness of industrial life; the sacrifice of passion to the greater god of money; and cynical, unwholesome sentimentality of some of the literature that was respected at the time. (Any page references refer to the Wordsworth Classics edition - ISBN 978-1-84022-488-7.)
The first is exemplified by the following passage (page 136). It is an inner monologue voiced by Constance - Lady Chatterley - as she is driven through the English midlands:
This is history. One England blots out another. The mines had made the halls wealthy. Now they were blotting them out, as they had already blotted out the cottages. The industrial England blots out the agricultural England. One meaning blots out another. The new England blots out the old England. And the continuity is not organic, but mechanical.I'll illustrate Lawrence's second theme not in his own words (well, not all of them anyway), but by way of a 'found poem', a poem that recasts the essence Lawrence's text in a new form. The original text can be found on page 266.
The third theme can be exemplified by many passages from the book, but moreover the entire book can be seen as an embodiment, and incarnation, of Lawrence's call for genuine feeling. This is why none of the sexual language or description in the book is in any sense gratuitous. And it is this, far more than the socio-economic arguments, that makes the book political.Modern LoveFrom Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. LawrenceThis great industrial population has to be fed, keptgoing somehow. The women talk, nowadays,more than men, more cocksure. The men are limp,feel doomed, go about as if nothing can be done,in spite of all the talk. The young are madfor want of money to spend; their lives dependon spending money. This, we are told, is civilisation; for this,we have state education: the masses reared on spendinguntil the money gives out, the pits on a two-day week,no better even in winter, feeding a family on a pittance;the mad spending goes on, and the women are the worst.How can you tell them living is not spending? If onlythey were taught, instead of earn and spend, to live,they could learn to be happy on the little they earn.Men dressed more gaily wouldn’t think about money:they could dance and hop and skip, sing and swagger,be handsome with little cash; and keep the womenamused, and be themselves amused by the women;be naked and handsome; sing in a mass, and dancethe old dances together; carve their own seats,weave their own emblems. But it is hopeless—for they think only of spending who should not think at all.Be alive and be frisky, worship the great god Pan.Other gods are for the few, let the mass forever be pagan.
Constance Chatterley is married to a wealthy, landed, cripple named Clifford. Clifford occupies his time by writing popular novels that fail to attract much critical applause. As this passage (page 53) shows, Clifford is frustrated by this lack of recognition:
Clifford, of course, had still many childish taboos and fetishes. He wanted to be thought 'really good', which was all cock-a-hoopy nonsense. What was really good was what actually caught on. It was no good being really good and getting left with it. It seemed as if most of the 'really good' men just missed the bus. After all you only lived one life, and if you missed the bus, you were just left on the pavement, along with the rest of the failures.Later (page 170) Clifford discusses literature with Constance:
'Have you ever read Proust?' he asked her.How's that for a condemnation of sentimentality! I recommend reading Lady Chatterley's Lover, though I warn you to set aside any squeamishness - very few books, even today, are as brutally honest as this one is, or so linguistically fearless. I'll leave the last word to Lady Chatterley's lover himself, who has not been mentioned at all till now. He would describe the edifice of literature, and the society that has given rise to it, as just so much clatfart. Oh, go look it up!
'I've tried, but he bores me.'
'He's really very extraordinary.'
'Possibly! But he bores me: all that sophistication! He doesn't have feelings, he only has streams of words about feelings. I'm tired of self-important mentailities.'
'Would you prefer self-important animalities?'
'Perhaps! But one might possibly get something that wasn't self-important.'
'Well, I like Proust's subtlety and his well-bred anarchy.'
'It makes you very dead really.'
'There speaks my evangelical little wife.'